The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Limitations of School Choice

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

Among the strategies for helping academically disadvantaged young Americans, that of enlarging the range of educational choices open to impoverished families has received a good deal of attention. One scholar interested in this strategy is Joshua Cowen of the University of Kentucky, who recently investigated the effects of issuing tax-funded vouchers covering much or all of the cost of sending children to a private school. As Cown explains:

Within the private sector, a diverse array of educational options serves a market of parents and students opting out of the traditional public system. This market includes families whose access to private education is contingent on resources beyond their personal economic means. In recent years, one such resource has been a set of scholarship programs—some funded by public money, others with private endeavors—with the explicit purpose to open the private market to individuals who would choose only among the cost-free public options in the absence of scholarships.

Cowen notes that despite some controversy surrounding the research on the benefits of such school-choice programs, the bulk of such research apparently finds “small but positive achievement gains for students” involved in such programs. Cowen’s investigation, however, makes it clear that not all poor children are equally likely to enjoy these positive gains: whether a mother is married and whether she is employed full-time outside the home heavily influence the likelihood that her children will use a voucher to attend a private school.

Dissecting data from a scholarship lottery in Charlotte for the 1999–2000 academic year, Cowen establishes the importance of both parental marital status and maternal employment status as determinants of voucher use. Cowen’s data indicate that “students who declined the voucher were disproportionately more likely to come from single-parent homes where the mother worked full-time; students who accepted the offer were more likely to come from homes with two parents where the mother either worked only part-time or was unemployed.” Fully 80 percent of the households declining the vouchers were households in which the mother was employed full time; just 4 percent of the households declining these vouchers were households in which the mother was employed part-time.

Focusing on the effects of family structure alone, Cowen finds that “Decliners [i.e., parents declining the offered vouchers] were far more likely to come from homes in which only one parent lived or where parents were divorced or never married in the first place”: only 15 percent of the households declining the vouchers were two-parent households.

Cowen understandably considers his findings relevant to the hopes of colleagues who believe “school vouchers to be among the potential remedies for persistent achievement ‘gaps’ between higher-income (often white) students and lower-income (typically minority) students.” After all, his study provides “evidence . . . [identifying] those who will, will not, or still cannot leave the public sector” in education. As he weighs the impact of family disintegration and full-time maternal employment, Cowen sees “barriers to school choice.” “Those families who will not or cannot choose an alternative educational sector over public schooling,” Cowen concludes, “are by definition those for whom choice programs are not a realistic solution to persistent educational inequality.”

Policymakers may indeed improve the prospects of disadvantaged youth by offering school-choice vouchers—but such improvements will prove meager until the nation reverses its disastrous retreat from marriage and maternal homemaking.

(Joshua Cowen, “ Who Chooses, Who Refuses? Learning More from Students Who Decline Private School Vouchers,”American Journal of Education 117.1 [November 2010]: 1–24.)